It was a different sort of crowd than you’d usually see at a concert.

There were about 300 people in the crowd and about half of them were patients. Some were undergoing chemotherapy while some others were in for dialysis. There were general bystanders, and relatives of those patients peppered in amongst the crowd. Doctors, nurses, and medical and nursing students were another faction, all spread out across the lawns of GHE, General Hospital Ernakulam, in the heart of Kochi city.

The performer? Kaitahapram Damodaran Namboodiri, poet, lyricist and winner of multiple awards and prizes. The organizers were a little nervous because Kaithapram had suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed and still undergoing physiotherapy, and when he arrived at the venue (ahead of the scheduled time) he was limping, one side of his body visibly affected by his illness. His son, Deepankuran, a young musician in the Malayalam cinema industry, helped him climb onto stage and get settled. Kaithaparam began with a simple statement, “Art is medicine.”

It was the 23rd installment of the Arts & Medicine program, a project organized by the Kochi Biennale Foundation at GHE.  Kaithapram and Deepankuran entertained the crowd for more than an hour with Malayalam melodies, and classical and semi-classical music. On another occasion, twelve doctors (from eight different hospitals) gathered to perform for their patients, in an event supported by the cultural wing of the Indian Medical Association. On other days, in other installments, there were performances by popular Malayalam singer Afzal, by veteran musician Jerry Amaldev and his 20-member choral troupe, by Berny-Ignatius (a music composer-brother-duo), and by Sithara, a playback singer. And every event was filled to the brim, by those in the hospital for treatment, those who were there to support, those visiting, those who worked there, and many, many people who just came for the show.

In art there is an opportunity for acknowledgment and true depiction of patient suffering. In sixteenth-century Isenheim (what we now know as France), there was an outbreak of a mysterious, gruesome disease badged Saint Anthony’s Fire, so-named for symptoms that included painful sores, gangrene and inflammation of nerve endings, making the afflicted feel as though their bodies were on fire. Sufferers flocked to the Antonite monastery hospital begging for relief. To celebrate deliverance from this plague, the monks commissioned German renaissance artist Matthias Grunewald to create an altarpiece for the monastery’s chapel. The Isenheim Altarpiece is now considered one of the Renaissance period’s most significant pieces, vivid testimony to the agony and isolation of those who suffered the fire, as well as, in later panels in the piece, to hope, healing and redemption.

Truth is a powerful thing, in art, in hospitals, and everywhere else.

The Arts & Medicine program launched on the first of February 2014 in Kochi, under the direction of Dr Iva Fattorini, the Arts & Medicine specialist at New York’s Cleveland Clinic. Visiting the first edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2012, Fattorini and the project look at how healthcare organisations can create promote more diverse and stimulating environments that culturally enrich and uplift patients, caregivers, and hospital staff.

Daniel Connell, an Australian artist in Kochi for an art project, heard about A&M an expressed a desire to get involved. He visited the EGH cancer ward on 8th February 2014 with only his sketchbook and pencil, and, whilst chatting with patients and passers-by, sketched 40 patients, making a collection that, when displayed on the walls of the ward, temporarily transformed a corridor into a gallery wall.

Later that year, cartoonist Sajjive Balakrishnan (a man who holds the LIMCA Record for being India’s fastest caricaturist) sped through illustrations of patients, bystanders, doctors, nurses and anyone else who cared to join the (fast-moving) queue.

Medicine and the arts are closely interwoven, even if the link isn’t always immediately evident. There is an art to the medical practitioner, to the nurse who knows when to go the extra mile, to the doctor who is able to decisively interpret the symptoms and fears of a patient, and to anyone who is able to imagine what it’s like to be on the wrong side of visiting hours. And nowhere is fodder for art more abundant than in the field of medicine, where themes like fate, salvation, death and loss abound.

It’s been one year, four months and 65 events since the A&M program kicked off, and every event is testimony to how rapidly the program gains popularity. And if you needed further confirmation, all your have to do is land up on the lawns of GHE, every Wednesday at 10.30am.

Author: Bonny Thomas
Photographs: Kochi Biennale Foundation

Motherland is a bi-monthly magazine with a focus on contemporary and emerging Indian cultures.

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